December-January 2019: The Deep End
First Sunday of Advent
1 December 2019
The Deep End • Lovingly prepared
‘Making your Christmas cake in September is perfect, as too fresh a cake crumbles when cut.’ (Mary Berry)
My mother, like many of her generation, starts her Christmas preparations early. The first thing to be done is the Christmas cake – in our house this always took place over the Hallowe’en break. I remember finding it strange to watch her lovingly prepare the fruit cake, only to hide it away in a tin for a couple of months. I laughed when I came across the above quote from food writer and TV presenter Mary Berry, as it pushes the Christmas preparation even earlier!
Every year we hear complaints that the lead-in to Christmas is starting earlier and earlier. We might not all be making cakes in September, but by Hallowe’en we are certainly looking ahead to Christmas – thinking about what gifts to buy family and friends, checking out the decorations that have started to appear in the shops, perhaps even stockpiling tins of biscuits and boxes of chocolates. Many people sign up to Christmas clubs in order to spread the cost over the year. It’s no wonder we often arrive at this time of year feeling like it’s no time at all since last Christmas – it is never far from our minds.
As we enter Advent, we are invited now to turn our attention to our inner preparation for Christmas. We are waiting ‘in joyful hope’ both for Christ’s birth and his return at the end of time. Taking some time each day to pray and reflect, perhaps to light the candles on our Advent wreath, will help us to focus on the wonderful mysteries that await us.
‘Every year we celebrate the holy season of Advent, O God. Every year we pray those beautiful prayers of longing and waiting, and sing those lovely songs of hope and promise.’ (Karl Rahner)
Second Sunday of Advent
8 December 2019
The Deep End • Change of heart
‘Once again, we come to the Holiday Season, a deeply religious time that each of us observes, in his own way, by going to the mall of his choice.’ (Dave Barry)
We might recognise ourselves in the above statement! We are so used to the commercial side of Christmas – the frenzy of ads and gift-buying, the extravagant decorations and parties – that it is easy to forget what we are really celebrating.
That’s where john the Baptist comes in. We first meet John in Luke’s Gospel, before he is even born: Elizabeth’s pregnancy is announced at the same time as Mary’s, though John will be born first. The next we hear of John, he appears as God’s messenger (as we hear in today’s Gospel), preparing the way of the Lord. His job is to set the stage for Jesus to begin his ministry, and his central message is repentance. The Greek word for repentance was metanoia, which literally means a change of heart, or turning one’s life around. So John is inviting his audience to make a break with the past, turn to God, and go in a different direction. When Jesus begins his own ministry, his first message is the very same: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’
This is a fitting message as we enter the second week of Advent. As we prepare to welcome Jesus, we are invited to metanoia, or change of heart. As we ponder the mysteries of Christmas, we are nudged onwards in a new direction. This week, we could make a conscious effort to move away from the noise and lights of ‘the mall’, to still our minds, and to open our hearts to God’s call.
‘Christmas is a season for kindling the fire for hospitality in the hall, the genial flame of charity in the heart.’ (Washington Irving)
Third Sunday of Advent
15 December 2019 • Gaudete Sunday
The Deep End • Christmas is all around
The sights and sounds and smells of the season are all around us. Is there a particular sound that reminds you of Advent or Christmas – perhaps a carol you’ve always loved, or the sound of jingle bells? For many, the smell of mince pies or mulled wine are real signs of Christmas. Our towns and cities are filled with wonderful sights too: festive lights and decorations, trees decked out with tinsel and baubles, while our churches display Nativity scenes. Another common sight in the run-up to Christmas are the charity collectors we meet on the streets, singing carols or shaking buckets, urging us to give generously to a good cause. It is a feast for the senses, with these experiences often evoking warm Christmas memories and putting us in good humour. Today is known as Gaudete Sunday – Gaudete means ‘rejoice’. In our churches, the rose-coloured candle is lit on the Advent wreath to symbolise joy.
Today’s readings bring out this sense of joyful anticipation of the Lord’s coming. The people of Jesus’ time would have been familiar with Isaiah’s talk of ‘everlasting joy and gladness’. And Jesus tells us: ‘Happy is the man who does not lose faith in me’. It is this personal encounter with Jesus that we celebrate at Christmas, God becoming man, the Good News announced by John the Baptist in today’s Gospel. We have reason to be happy – let’s make this Gaudete Sunday a real celebration.
Fourth Sunday of Advent
22 December 2019
The Deep End • Joseph the dreamer
Pope Francis has spoken on several occasions about his devotion to St Joseph. St Joseph is his favourite saint, he says, because he shows us how God reveals his plan to us in our times of silence and rest. He keeps a statue of a sleeping St Joseph on his desk, placing prayer requests under it.
Speaking on a trip to the Philippines in 2015, he said: ‘I have great love for Saint Joseph, because he is a man of silence and strength … Joseph’s rest revealed God’s will to him. In this moment of rest in the Lord, as we pause from our many daily obligations and activities, God is also speaking to us. But like St Joseph, once we have heard God’s voice, we must rise from our slumber; we must get up and act.’
Today’s Gospel recalls the central role played by St Joseph in the story of the birth of Jesus. A man of honour from the outset, the goodness of his character is further highlighted by his response to God’s voice. When he wakes up after hearing God’s instructions in a dream, he immediately acts on it and takes Mary into his home. His openness to God’s will is a crucial element in the story that follows: his partnership with and support of Mary, the birth of Jesus, his care for the child ‘who is to save his people’.
Christmas is very near now, and we are busy and preoccupied with our preparations. A good time, perhaps, to pause in silence, to rest with God, and to listen to what he might have to say to us.
The Nativity of the Lord (Christmas)
25 December 2019
The Deep End • Lead, Kindly Light
The journey towards Christmas is one we make at the darkest time of the year. The days are short and the evenings filled with shadows. For this reason the symbolism of light at Christmas time is very powerful. Today, we celebrate the birth of our Saviour – the light of the world, the ‘light that shines in the dark’. The candles we light in our homes and churches at Christmas time remind us also that we are called to shine the light of Christ in the world.
Earlier this year, Cardinal John Henry Newman was canonised. One of his most famous works was a poem called ‘The Pillar and the Cloud’, which is better known as the hymn ‘Lead, Kindly Light’. It contains some powerful imagery of light, including the lines ‘Lead, Kindly Light, amidst the encircling gloom, Lead Thou me on!/The night is dark, and I am far from home, Lead Thou me on!’
At the canonisation Mass on 13 October, Pope Francis called on us all to be ‘kindly lights’ in the darkness. When we light our Christmas candle today, let’s consider where we can be the light of Christ. When we place a light in our window, as is the tradition on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, do we live out the welcome and hospitality it represents? Do we shine the light of love in our families, and the light of compassion and kindness to all those we meet? How do we offer the light of hope to those who are less fortunate than ourselves?
‘The Christian has a deep, silent, hidden peace which the world sees not … The Christian is cheerful, easy, kind, gentle, courteous, candid, unassuming, has no pretence …’ (John Henry Newman)
The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph
29 December 2019
The Deep End • Displaced
‘One of the unsettling things about my journey, mentally, physically, and emotionally, was that I wasn’t sure when or where it was going to end.’ (from A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah) We like to imagine, sometimes, what the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph were like. What was their daily routine? How did they eat, work and pray together? There are very few details in the Gospels about Jesus’ early years, other than the accounts of his birth and one story detailing the time he went missing in Jerusalem and was found in the Temple.
But in today’s Gospel we get an insight into some of the early challenges faced by this little family. While Jesus was still small, Joseph was urged in a dream to escape with the family to Egypt as Jesus’ life was under threat. Can you imagine what that experience was like for them – leaving their home and fleeing to another country, not knowing when, or if, it would be safe to return home? Sadly, millions of people in our world do not have to imagine this type of experience – they live it every day. Like many others, the Holy Family were, for some time, forced to leave their home country due to persecution – this is the very definition of a refugee or displaced person.
This painful human experience was at the very heart of the family experience of Jesus himself. Later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that when we welcome strangers, we welcome Jesus himself. Compassion and welcome for strangers, particularly those who are vulnerable, was a key element of Jesus’ life and ministry. It should be central to ours, too.
Second Sunday of Christmas
5 January 2020
The Deep End • World Became Flesh
Today we hear the beautiful prologue to John’s Gospel. It would be worth finding the time to meditate on these verses during the week. They are beautifully rich. ‘In the beginning was the Word…’ in Greek, logos. This logos (Word) has far more meaning than its English translation can give. It refers to all-knowledge; all-being; that which is forever; the Word that is Divine, Creator of the universe, Being, God, Father and Mother of all things.
We read in this prologue that not one thing came to be without God. Do we really see God at the centre of all things? In our environment, in nature, in all created beings? Science tells us our universe is 13.8 billion years old. We cannot even conceive of such a time scale. John tells us of God at that point, at that great flaring forth of all creation, when everything came to be. This Word was with God at that moment and was God.
If we truly believe in the Incarnation, let us be alert and awake to the Incarnation of God every day in our lives; Christ present in all people, in every created thing, for God is fully at work in creation at every stage, then, now and forever. For creation and incarnation are not different events, but the same event, the same process. ‘God is always incarnate, always bound to the world as its lover, as close to it, as we are to our own bodies, and concerned before all else to see that the body, God’s world, flourishes.’ SALLIE MCFAGUE
The Epiphany of the Lord
6 January 2020
The Deep End • The Wise Men
The Wise Men are known as astrologers or philosophers from the East. They were certainly ‘seekers’, looking to the skies for signs and guidance; their hearts and minds set on finding God. These Wise Men embarked on an amazing journey, determined.
For Herod, the thought of a new King who might threaten his reign forces him to call together all those considered to have authority on religious matters. He must find out who this King is. Herod is concerned with his power structures; the possibility of a new King is too much. In contrast to this, the Wise Men are humbled before these leaders and genuinely seek to learn from them. They are open. We are told that the sight of the star ‘filled them with delight’. This story has much to say to us today as we ‘seek’ out new insights or fresh manifestations of God.
As the Wise Men go ‘into the house the saw the child with his mother Mary, and falling to their knees they did him homage’. This scene describes a moment of great joy, of grace and is in total contrast to the scene of Herod frantically calling the religious leaders together. God is found in the simple spaces.
The Wise Men represent all peoples, all cultures, a clear message that God is for all regardless of nationality, culture and even faith. Today let us recall our own journeys to moments of epiphany,
moments that led to a new grace in our life, a new stage of spiritual growth. What ‘star’ had brought us there? What gifts did we leave there? What gifts did we receive?
The Baptism of the Lord
12 January 2020
The Deep End • Baptism of Jesus
John the Baptist was driven by one mission: to point people to Jesus, to prepare the way for Jesus. Yet John is uneasy in this account of Jesus’ baptism. The moment has arrived but he is standing before someone much greater than himself and is being asked to minister. John feels unqualified, unworthy of such a task. After some persuasion ‘John gave into him’ and accepted his responsibility. This is a lesson to all of us, not to let feelings of inadequacy stop us from carrying out our various missions and vocations in our lives. Jesus explains to John that this is necessary as a sign for the beginning of his ministry, a public statement of identity.
Today we might consider our own baptism and what it means to us. At that moment we were anointed as priests, prophets and Kings. To what extent do we live this out in our Christian lives? John points us towards Jesus and we can ask, do we also point the way to Jesus for others? How can we be a signpost for others?
Remember today those who pointed the way for you at various times in your life. Maybe a chaplain in school or college, a teacher, grandparent, a friend, a retreat you participated in. At various times in our lives we meet these ‘signposts’ which help us to grow in our faith and deepen our awareness of Christ’s love. Let us celebrate all of these ‘baptismal’ moments today.
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
19 January 2020
The Deep End • The Lamb of God
In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist is inviting us to look at Jesus. He calls Jesus the ‘lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’. We say these words often at mass and today we are invited to meditate on them more closely. What does it mean? In Jesus’ time, two lambs were sacrificed in the Temple in Jerusalem each day. It was a ritual that invoked purity. Jesus will preach a love that is radical for many, in a world that was, and still is, broken. John refers to Jesus as the lamb as he knows that if one loves in such a way, they will suffer at the hands of unjust systems and institutions.
When we look at the ‘sins’ of our world today – broken relationships, crisis, can we also see those who, like Jesus, ‘take away’ the sins of the world? Christ’s love was not passive, he actively challenged systems that were oppressive and which prevented people from living life to the full. Whether it be the climate crisis or the homelessness crisis or any number of issues we face, ‘look’ where Jesus walks and is actively working to ease this suffering. When we hear these words at mass, let us be reminded of all those who sacrifice much to ease the sufferings of others. This is Christ, the ‘lamb of God’ active in our world today. ‘The descent into the waters of our spirit, is a journey into the presence of divinity … all human beings are children of God but not all live in the awareness that there is ‘that of God’ within them’
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
26 January 2020 • Catholic Schools Week begins today
The Deep End • Jesus Begins His Ministry in Galilee
In today’s Gospel we hear that Jesus withdrew to Galilee and made his home in Capernaum by the lake. Anyone who has been to the Holy Land will have visited Capernaum and will know that it is a beautiful place. In Jesus’ time this was a thriving fishing town.
To ‘repent’ literally means ‘to turn around’. We are called to transformation, to turn away from what is not life giving and embrace a full life. Its hard to imagine behaving in the same way as Simon Peter and Andrew, leaving everything behind them and following Jesus. There must have been something very attractive about Jesus. The account in Matthew is quite short but one wonders if they had heard him speak many times before this moment. It takes courage to drop everything and follow something new. Obviously, they were ready for it, it was the right moment and their hearts said ‘Yes!’
These accounts are the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Today perhaps you can reflect on moments you were called to something new and even though it meant leaving something behind, you knew it was the right choice. You were at peace with your decision despite the challenges it might bring. This process never ends, we are constantly called to ‘repent’, renew, rediscover, seek out.